President Barack Obama is skipping the NAACP’s annual convention this week in what some are calling a snub to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization at a time when the black unemployment rate has skyrocketed to 14.4 percent – twice the rate of whites.
The decision to dispatch Vice President Joe Biden to Houston on Thursday to fill in for Obama is a missed opportunity for the president to rally the faithful. With four months to go until Election Day, the presidential race has tightened considerably with all major polls showing Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney locked in a dead heat.
Romney will have a chance to connect with black voters in Obama’s absence when he addresses the NAACP convention on Wednesday. It will be a curious contrast this week in Houston: NAACP delegates who worked so hard to help elect Obama as the nation’s first black president, will not see their black commander-in-chief on stage, but instead, a convention hall packed with black activists will be treated to speeches by Romney and Biden.
So why is Obama taking a pass on the NAACP?
The Obama campaign hasn’t released a public explanation and while it’s true that Obama can’t be everywhere, there are some social justice organizations that should take priority and the NAACP should be one of them.
For the past year, I’ve listened to Obama campaign advisers correctly tell me that the November race could be one of the closest presidential elections in history and that every single vote will count.
And today, millions of African-Americans are at risk of being ineligible to vote in this year's presidential election because of strict voter identification laws. Thirty-two states have pending laws that call for voters to present government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot and civil rights activists maintain the laws are specifically designed to keep minorities from voting.
So if the stakes are so high, why wouldn’t Obama want to speak to NAACP delegates when he needs an army of grass-roots foot soldiers to canvass black neighborhoods, knock on doors, make telephone calls, send e-mails, and drive folks to the polls in November?
I received a dozen e-mails from black journalists and veteran Democrats on Capitol Hill who said Obama could have discussed a range of social issues, including his thoughts about the soaring black unemployment rate, the HIV-AIDS crisis in the black community, and high college tuition costs.
“The Obama campaign may believe black folks are already in the bag and they don’t feel Obama should waste his time speaking to the NAACP,” said one black journalist who covers politics. "The decision for the president to take a pass makes no sense."
Several black Democrats in Washington, D.C., speculated that the Obama campaign wants to focus on white, undecided, working-class voters who could decide the election.
“It’s disrespectful to the NAACP,” said one black Democrat on Capitol Hill. “The campaign is hoping that we’re a forgiving people and will vote enthusiastically in November.”
The NAACP has a long history of mobilizing masses of black voters during presidential elections and there’s certainly no reason to believe the NAACP will slow its voter-outreach movement now. In fact, the NAACP is gearing up for an unprecedented goal: to move one million black voters to the polls in November.
And while NAACP Chairman Roslyn Brock says the Obama no-show is “not a concern for us,” because “Vice President Biden is a friend to the NAACP,” Clarence Wilson, an NAACP delegate from Williamsburg, Va., said he’s disappointed, adding that Obama should have attended the convention to fire up the NAACP troops.
"This whole election is about enthusiasm and getting people really charged up to get out there and vote," Wilson told NPR.
It’s unfortunate that NAACP delegates won’t hear directly from Obama this week but in the meantime the president’s campaign advisers are hoping that black voters like Clarence Wilson will still support Obama unconditionally.